Reflection for the centenary of the outbreak of World War One

Reflection for World War One commemoration, 3 August 2014, Old High Church

Rev Peter W Nimmo, minister of Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness

from The Glimmering Landscape, Charles L Warr

Throughout that glorious summer of 1914 the Suffragettes became noisier and noisier, smashing windows, breaking up meetings, chaining themselves to railing and pouring acid down pillar boxes.

The crisis of Ulster darkened and deepened. Sir Edward Carson and Galloper Smith were still addressing impassioned crowds and the impassioned crowds were becoming more and more impassioned. “Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right,” shouted Galloper Smith, quoting Lord Randolph Churchill, who had said it first some thirty-odd years before. The whole situation was becoming very alarming, for people were beginning to whisper that it looked like civil war.

So with all that going on, the murder of an Austrian archduke towards the end of June at some place called Sarajevo in the Balkans could hardly be expected to interest us much. Where was Sarajevo anyway, and what was an Austrian archduke but a figure of Ruritanian fun?

But a month later the country was thoroughly startled. On 28th July Sir Edward Grey made a statement of sensational gravity in the House of Commons. Austria, he said, had rejected the reply by Serbia to an ultimatum demanding satisfaction for the assassination at Sarajevo. So anyone could see that international trouble of the utmost seriousness was swiftly boiling up.

The next few days were days of utter bewilderment. Events moved with confusing rapidity. Sombre shadows were obviously falling over Europe.
It was shocking, stupefying and incredible that we, who had been nurtured on the optimistic visions of Lord Tennyson, should be on the brink of a general European War.

But by the fourth of August, though not one European ruler and hardly one European statesman wanted it to happen, the shocking, stupefying and incredible thing in fact had happened. The great Powers of Europe had stumbled and blundered into a fight to the death, and the long grey ships of the British Fleet, fortunately assembled at Spithead for the King’s Review, put silently out to sea.

The dreadnoughts of the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet sailed for Orkney. A few weeks ago I sailed across Scapa Flow, to the former naval headquarters on Hoy. I tried to picture what that lovely bay must have looked like filled with naval ships. And it turned out that our ferry had sailed over the graveyard of another fleet.

For one of the causes of the war had been an armaments race- a naval race- as Germany built more and larger ships to try to catch up with Britain- and Britain built more and larger ships to try to stay ahead. And at the end of the war, the Kaiser’s High Seas fleet was disarmed, and, manned by skeleton crews, sailed across the North Sea to a point just off the Firth of Forth, where they were met by much of the British and French navies. The flotilla- the largest fleet ever assembled in the history of the world- sailed up the east coast of Scotland to Scapa Flow, where the German fleet was interned during the Armistice negotiations.

But as the negotiations dragged on, the German Admiral decided it would be dishonourable to surrender his fleet, and his crews opened the water cocks and scuttle some 52 ships. Many have since been salvaged, but some lie still under the Orkney waters. Weapons like that were, people were told, to keep the peace. But as the historian AJP Taylor put it, at the end of his famous book on the outbreak of the war, War by Timetable, in this case, ‘The deterrent failed to deter’.

A few weeks later, I was in Fife, and visited the Secret Bunker- an underground command centre which would have served as the seat of government for Scotland had we ever faced a nuclear attack. From here a few government ministers and civil servants would have attempted to provide help to a population devastated by nuclear weapons. But the country would probably have been dead, blasted and irradiated by weapons much more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. There were those who hoped that the First World War would have been the war to end all wars, but until the 1990s we were still planning for a Third World War which would definitely have been a war to end all wars.

I have spent much of the summer reading about the origins of the First World War, and Charles Warr’s description of the great powers having ‘stumbled and blundered’ into war seems to me to just about sum up what happened. There is a theological word we use in Christianity to describe the causes of the stumbling and blundering which leads us into disaster- that word is sin. It is a strong term, but for Christians, war can be nothing more than sin, for its effects are so horrendous, and it has few redeeming qualities. Our Old Testament reading, in which the prophet Joel speaks of God’s judgement falling like a plague of locusts, like a marauding army, reflects the horror- complete, apparently unstoppable destruction.

A century later, and still it goes on- in Gaza, in Syria, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Libya, and in so many other parts of the world, people try to impose their values on others through violence, death, terror. It is as if we cannot learn. The technologies of industrial death which so shocked people in the early part of the twentieth century are now refined to a pitch.

A few years ago, I heard George Reid, former Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, who used to be an official of the International Red Cross, tell a group of military chaplains what I suspect many of them had already realised- that war nowadays impacts civilians so much more. Whereas in the First World War, 90% of casualties were military, and 10% civilians, today the proportion is reversed: 90% of casualties are civilians, and only 10% are combatants. And that is why there much be other ways.

We heard Jesus give in the gospel his radical prescription for taking the violence out of human relationships- no more eye for an eye, no more hatred of enemies. One hundred years after 1914, why are the children of Gaza still suffering, why are the Christians of Syria being thrown out of their homes, why are civilian airliners being shot out of the sky above Ukraine? The moralists used to say that war should be the last option. But truly, it ought not to be an option at all. If we could make war never an option, that would the best way to remember the victims of the Great War.

More from our  World War One commemoration service.

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